FINDING a solution for a player who can impose his will inside, go coast to coast, and occasionally hit three pointers used to be Ateneo’s problem every time it faces La Salle for the past two years.
Oh how times have changed.
Angelo Kouame turned out to be the game-changer that Ben Mbala was for La Salle as the Blue Eagles drew first blood in their rivalry match, 71-55, on Saturaday at the Mall of Asia Arena.
With Mbala now prospering as a globetrotting import and Taane Samuel out with an injury, La Salle’s frontline was certainly at a disadvantage and Kouame certainly feasted.
The 6-foot-10 center from Ivory Coast came up with 20 points, 13 rebounds, five shot blocks, and three steals as he stood head and shoulders above everyone and towed the Blue Eagles to their fifth straight win.
Kouame made seven of his 10 shots, drained a three-pointer and thrilled the crowd with his coast-to-coast drives ending up in slam dunks - things Mbala used to do for La Salle.
Though Kouame and Mbala’s playing styles may differ from each other, Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin believes that his big man’s impact was pretty much the same from the two-time MVP.
“I guess so,” responded Baldwin when asked if he felt the roles were reversed in this game.
“Ange had a very good game, very active game. Ange has got great hands defensively, he gets a lot of deflections. Turns a few of them into steals, but he has a lot of deflections, he’s disruptive, he changes shots, so it’s nice to have a guy like that that anchors your defense,” Baldwin continued. “He gave us a lot offensively too. I’m pleased for him.”
Thirdy Ravena, last year’s Finals MVP, also feels the difference this time around, especially with a player with the size and talent of Kouame now on their side.
Ravena, however, would reserve comparisons of Kouame to Mbala, or any dominant foreign reinforcement for that matter, saying that Kouame is a man of his own.
“Well, it was an advantage just cause they had no import,” said Ravena.
“Ange is a really good player, but I don’t wanna compare him to Ben, I don’t wanna compare him to anyone, he’s his own player,” he added.
“I think, with Ange, malaking bagay kasi ang laki ng nadadala niya sa defensive presence tsaka rebounding namin e. And as a player, hindi siya parang, maagaw sa bola, mahingi, and yun yung maganda kay Ange e. He just does his role and that’s why we’re successful right now. Everyone’s buying into the system.”
Active assistant Sandy Arespacochanga would hold on to the talks of role reversal just yet, but admits just the same that Kouame was certainly a game-changer.
It’s very rare for 19-year-old foreign reinforcements to adjust well to the pace and the physicality of the UAAP, but Kouame has certainly eased into that role this season.
For the longtime Ateneo coach Arespacochaga, Kouame’s quick adjustment was hinged on a lot of factors, and Baldwin’s system certainly plays a part on that.
“We’ve got a combination of the talent of this kid, plus his eagerness to learn. I think it’s coach Tab’s system also. He’s hitting threes, going coast to coast. We’re training him to be the best that we can be. That’s why we’re allowing him to shoot threes, and you see that coast to coast,” Arespacochaga said.
“That’s how we want to train our bigs. We want to teach them to play. Si coach tab I guess, the international game, you saw Isaac Go being a three point shooter, now Ange, so I guess that’s a part of coach Tab’s system also,” he added.
It’s certainly fun for Ateneo to be on the other side of the spectrum right now, in terms of having a dominant big man.
But as fun as having the upper hand for a change, Baldwin still threw his hats off to La Salle particularly their local big men.
“I feel bad for La Salle cause Samuel isn’t healthy. They don’t have an import but they still have a very strong inside presence with Justine and Santi and I thought Bates did a good job when he was out there.”